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December is Safe Toys and Gifts Month

General, Safety

Every parent feels a longing to see the anticipation of the holiday season culminate in an excited child opening something special the morning after Santa arrives.

If you’re planning to celebrate the season with little ones this year, take some advice from Sheila Ponzio, MD, an Adventist Health pediatrician who offers gift ideas and tips about how to fill the holiday with memories, togetherness and gifts that foster creative play and childhood well-being.

Form traditions

In the early toddler years, before children really “get” the whole holiday, you have an opportunity to form the traditions you want to foster and keep the expectations realistic for all future holidays to come. So, take some time before shopping to formulate what kind of memories you want to create and plan accordingly. “It is cliché, but more isn’t always better,” explains Dr. Ponzio.

Consider your own experiences with Christmases past to recall what are cherished memories for you. “I don’t remember that many ‘things’ I received, but I do remember the sparkling foil tinsel, the buttery smooth spritz cookies, the excitement, the snow, the wonderful feeling that all eight of us had the whole day just to be together and play,” Dr. Ponzio recalls.

Give gifts that foster play

Research has increasingly shown the value of play in early childhood. Almost all toys and creative play foster development and are, in fact, essential,” explains Dr. Ponzio. There are many ways a simple gift holds more value than you might first think:

  • Play dough and colored sand are tactile and great for fine motor development.
  • Kicking and throwing a ball, running, skipping, putting together puzzles and playing in group games are all ways to form neurocognitive connections that advance learning and well-being in childhood.
  • A simple slide can entertain a child for hours and they don’t even realize it’s fostering their proprioceptive skills!

Limit screen time

It is well known that too much screen time is a killer of creativity, and a safety and mental health concern. Many parents restrict it, and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends no screen time for children under age two (except for Skype or Zoom with Grandma!), no more than one hour a day from two to five years of age, and generally no more than two hours for children ages five to 17 years except for homework.

Are all video games a bad idea? “Definitely not,” says Dr. Ponzio. “I love the ones that get the family dancing or bowling or engaging with history.” Use the industry maturity ratings as a guideline, but trust your gut, too. Know what games your children are playing and, even better, play along with them or view what they are viewing.

“When it comes to cell phones, I advise there is almost no reason for a child to have one until they are driving, and then the very first lesson would be to put it away while driving,” she shares.

Favor safety and creativity

“You can bet we pediatricians despise trampolines and dirt bikes and would prefer a basketball hoop or bicycle (with a cool helmet) for the bigger ticket items. But if you go down those roads, be super-safety minded,” encourages Dr. Ponzio.

To encourage safe, creative ways to learn, Dr. Ponzio says musical instruments can be the best gift ever for a child inclined to learn something new. “Board games are increasingly popular, and complex strategy games provide many hours of educational fun without your children even realizing it!” she adds.

When you have children of different ages, be careful to teach the older ones what to keep away from the younger ones. “Anyone who has spent the night with a toddler who swallowed a Lego knows what I’m talking about!” Dr. Ponzio says.

Finally, if your family is experiencing financial difficulties, Christmas can be an especially difficult time. “You are not alone and it’s okay to ask for help,” Dr. Ponzio assures. “Reach out to your family and friends, your school, your employer, your church, or one of the many organizations in our communities that are here to help.”